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M8.7 Solar Flare and Earth Directed CME
UPDATE 01.25.12: The geomagnetic storm on the night of January 24-25 produced brilliant aurora at high latitudes as seen in this image from Sweden.

Aurora from geomagnetic storm seen in Sweden on 01.24.12.
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Image Courtesy of Peter Rosén.

UPDATE 01.24.12: The coronal mass ejection CME collided with Earth's magnetic field a little after 10 AM ET on January 24, 2012. NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center has categorized the resulting storm as "strong" -- or S3 (with S5 being the highest) -- storm. Solar radiation storms can affect satellite operations and short wave radio propagation, but cannot harm humans on Earth. Auroras may well be visible tonight at higher latitudes such as Michigan and Maine in the U.S., and perhaps even lower.

Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the flare, shown here in teal as that is the color typically used to show light in the 131 Angstrom wavelength, a wavelength in which it is easy to view solar flares. The flare began at 10:38 PM ET on Jan. 22, peaked at 10:59 PM and ended at 11:34 PM. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA
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The sun erupted late on January 22, 2012 with an M8.7 class flare, an earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME), and a burst of fast moving, highly energetic protons known as a "solar energetic particle" event. The latter has caused the largest proton event since October 2003.

NASA's Goddard Space Weather Center's models predict that the CME is moving at almost 1,400 miles per second, and could reach Earth's magnetosphere – the magnetic envelope that surrounds Earth -- as early as tomorrow, Jan 24 at 9 AM ET (plus or minus 7 hours). This has the potential to provide good auroral displays, possibly at lower latitudes than normal.

The Solar Heliospheric Observatory captured the coronal mass ejection (CME) in this video (which shows the sun's activity from January 19 to January 23). The end of the movie shows the interference caused by the onslaught of fast, energetic solar particles emitted from the sun. Credit: SOHO/ESA & NASA
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What is a solar flare? What is a coronal mass ejection?

For answers to these and other space weather questions, please visit the Spaceweather Frequently Asked Questions page.

Karen C. Fox
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center